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Interview with Francis McBeth

From 1957 to 1996 Dr. Francis McBeth (born 1933) was Professor of Music, Resident Composer and Chairman of the Theory-Composition Department at Ouachita University (pronounced wash-i-taw) in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (US). He was also conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock for many years until his retirement in 1973, after which he was elected Conductor Emeritus.

One of the most prolific composers of wind band music in the 20th Century, McBeth's formal training was received at Hardin-Simmons University, University of Texas and the Eastman School of Music.  He has consistently been in the top group of the most performed American symphonic wind composers the past 30 years, and his style is reflected in much of the music being written today by much younger composers. He also plays the trumpet and bass violin.

The following interview was first released by Associated Press on 28 July 2003.

Arkadelphia composer on the road conducting his music

By JIM NEWSOM

ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (AP) - He may have closed the books on his university teaching career, but W. Francis McBeth has not laid down his baton as a conductor or his pen as a composer.

McBeth, 70, of Arkadelphia retired as a Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) music professor in 1996 after 40 years of teaching conducting, theory and other applied musical arts. In the seven years since he graded his last paper at OBU, he has traveled from coast to coast and around the world composing concert band music and conducting the premieres of his musical works.

"Really, I am doing the very same thing - except I am not grading papers," McBeth said with a laugh.

For the past 40 years or so, McBeth had three jobs: music professor, composer and conductor. When he retired from OBU, he narrowed those down to two - either of which would be a full-time job for most folks.

"When I retired, it gave me more chance to do the 'middle-of-the-week' engagements than I had had before," he said.

"All of the university and professional groups work in the middle of the week. They don't really work on the weekends," he said. "It opened up a whole other field for me. Since I have retired, I have been traveling more and conducting more - and writing a lot more. So, it's really just the same thing but retirement gave me more time to do it."

Most recently, McBeth has premiered work for the 175th anniversary of the Allentown, Pa., concert band, the oldest such band in America, and has conducted his commissioned work at the University of Southern Oregon in Ashland.

As a trumpet and bass violin player, McBeth has, during his career, performed in Germany, France, Italy, England, Scotland and Iceland. As a composer, conductor and lecturer, he travels about nine months of the year. He has conducted in 48 states, Australia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

As a teacher, he has provided instruction to many now-famous musicians such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Another of his former students, Steven Bryant is now a professor at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and is also a composer.

As a composer, McBeth tailors his commissioned pieces to the customer. Such was the case for "A Coventry," the work he composed for the Allentown band.

"Since the Allentown band is so American, I wanted to get an American theme. You can't get more American than Mark Twain or Bret Harte. So I did a three-movement work for them based on Bret Harte's most famous short story, 'The Outcasts of Poker Flat."'

Wishing to avoid the impression that the work was "a western," McBeth titled the composition "A Coventry," an ancient English term for a place for outcasts.

"They used to scare their children (in old England) by saying, 'If you're not good, I'm going to send you to Coventry."'

McBeth's compositions have won accolades around the world, especially in Japan and Germany.

"I've always had a big play in Japan, but right now, I'm getting a huge play in Germany for some reason. There are pieces that Germany has really taken onto lately," he said.

McBeth said that, because of the wars that raged across Europe for many years during the 20th century, the continent was culturally behind when it came to concert bands. Most Europeans, he said, equated such groups with military marching bands.

"The didn't conceive bands with concerts," he said.

Many of McBeth's compositions are based on literary themes. His latest CD, "Symphonic Wind Music of Francis McBeth" contains a nearly 20-minute long selection entitled "Of Sailors and Whales."

The four-part piece captures in music the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of "Moby Dick" characters Ishmael, Queequeg, Father Mapple, Captain Ahab and - last but certainly not least - Moby Dick, The White Whale.

The "Ahab" selection has a percussion line that imitates the clunk, clunk, clunk of Ahab pacing the deck of the Pequod, the doomed whaling ship, with his wooden leg. The work is McBeth's most popular composition.

When composing, whether the piece is based on literary themes or not, McBeth quickly chooses a "motive" or central theme, known, he said, in the old days as "melodies."

"Beethoven's Fifth is based on a motive - a four-note motive, two pitches and four notes," he said, humming the "da-ta-ta-daaaa, da-ta-ta-daaaa" theme so familiar to many.

Once he has the motive down pat, the rest is a piece of musical cake for the composer whose works such as "Lauds and Tropes" have been performed for decades by Arkansas high school bands.

"You spin it out," he said, explaining how he takes a theme line and expands it into a full-fledged concert composition. "You make it melodic and characteristic, repeating the intervals of this motive where it all is kissing cousins."

He said it is easier to base a work on a literary theme than it is just to sit down with a blank sheet of scoring paper and write. "It gives me a direction to go for that particular work."

When asked which of his many compositions best defines his work, McBeth says, without hesitation, that it was "Through the Countless Halls of Air," a piece commissioned by and dedicated to the United States Air Force Band. The work was premiered in 1994, two years before McBeth retired from OBU, and traces in sound the history of manned flight.

"I just think it's the best piece I have ever done," McBeth said.

Looking toward his musical legacy, McBeth said his fondest desire is for his fellow musicians, students and music lovers everywhere to say of him, "I liked his music!"

"That's your whole lifetime's work. You want it accepted more than you want yourself accepted," he said. "The work is much more important -- especially when you've spent your whole life just doing that."

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